January 06, 2016

After years of playing in one of the Southeastern Conference's most outdated facilities, Mississippi hosts the first game in its $96.5 million new basketball arena on Thursday night.

Now coach Andy Kennedy hopes he has a team that's worthy of the new home.

Ole Miss (10-3, 0-1 SEC) faces Alabama (9-3, 0-0) on Thursday night in the team's conference home opener. The Rebels had a seven-game winning streak snapped on Saturday in an 83-61 road loss to Kentucky.

The new arena - called The Pavilion at Ole Miss - will undoubtedly be a huge upgrade over the 50-year-old Tad Smith Coliseum. The new venue has a capacity of 9,500, including more than 1,700 premium seats.

It's a project more than four years in the making since the school announced its intentions in 2011. Construction took about 18 months and pretty much everyone associated with Ole Miss has come away impressed with the final product.

''It's a real game-changer for our program,'' Kennedy said.

Said athletic director Ross Bjork: ''There's definitely a wow factor when you walk into the building.''

That likely will be enough to draw fans in the short term. Bjork said Ole Miss has sold about 5,000 season tickets for The Pavilion through the remainder of the year, compared to about 4,100 last year at Tad Smith Coliseum.

But basketball crowds have been historically fickle in Oxford. Even though Ole Miss has had relative success lately - making two out of the past three NCAA tournaments - it hasn't been a school that's particularly good or interested in basketball.

More winning wouldn't hurt as the Rebels introduce their new facility. Kennedy hopes his players don't get distracted by the hoopla surrounding the grand opening - or lose their home-court edge because of a rare mid-season venue change.

''I'm just trying to make sure our guys are focused on the task at hand,'' Kennedy said. ''And that's beating a very good Alabama team.''

Ole Miss had been one of the more surprising teams in the league before its lopsided loss to Kentucky at Rupp Arena. The Rebels were cruising until running into the Wildcats, winning seven straight games, including an impressive road victory over Memphis.

Guard Stefan Moody is the team's unquestioned star. The 5-foot-10 senior was moved from shooting guard to point guard early in the season after Sam Finley and J.T. Escobar struggled.

Moody has managed to be the team's main scorer and facilitator at the same time - leading the SEC with 23.7 points per game while also handing out a team-high 4.1 assists.

The problem is Moody isn't getting a whole lot of help.

Forward Sebastian Saiz is averaging nearly a double-double with 11.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, but other consistent options haven't emerged. No one had more than six points in the Kentucky loss except for Moody and Saiz.

''We're constantly a work in progress,'' Kennedy said.

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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